Whatever happened to the Coalition reshuffle? Remember that? It’s been mooted for months. It wasn’t just a reshuffle for the sake of it, either. In Chris Pearce and Margaret May the Coalition still has two retiring members overseeing portfolios — super and aged care — that, while not high-profile, are areas of Government focus.

Turnbull apparently had planned a reshuffle during the recent four-week Parliamentary break, but that idea disappeared when the entire break was given over to the Coalition ripping itself apart over Turnbull himself and the ETS. Reshuffles create losers and Turnbull, who these days is one major brain explosion away from losing the leadership, has enough enemies as things stand.

Andrew Robb’s illness complicates things, too. He still hopes to be back by Christmas. For the Liberals, he can’t return fast enough. He’s came up for the ETS meeting at the start of last week but since then has been having a break from Parliament.

Compared to this time last year, however, the Liberals appear to have more options for frontbench talent. The imminent arrival of Paul Fletcher and Kelly O’Dwyer, the sort of candidates any party would kill for, will further improve the talent pool, although asking either to slot straight onto the frontbench would be a big ask and more than a trifle disruptive. Even Malcolm Turnbull improbably cooled his heels on the Howard Government backbench awaiting the call to the exulted ranks of Parliamentary Secretaries.

And there are some rather inconvenient obstacles to the ostensible purpose of a reshuffle, to promote talent and loyalty and dispense with those proved not up to the task or insufficiently loyal. The Coalition agreement is one of them. The Nationals simply don’t have enough talent to warrant the number of frontbench positions they hold down — certainly not with their most streetsmart politician, Barnaby Joyce, and their smartest one, Fiona Nash — confining themselves to the backbench (Nash quit the frontbench after crossing the floor in 2008).

Sharman Stone — said to have been headed off the frontbench several weeks ago — is now fixed in place, since any change would suggest a lack of confidence in the Coalition’s position on asylum seekers.

Worse, Joe Hockey can’t possibly be moved despite a problematic performance as Shadow Treasurer and business concerns about him. It’s hard to criticise the bloke at the moment given he is helping care for the new addition to his family, but Helen Coonan seems to be lumped with trying to prosecute Coalition economic policy by herself in recent weeks.

And Julie Bishop is hidden about as far out of sight as it possible to have a deputy, and yet she still draws all sorts of negative attention. Bishop should be a good frontbencher, but has come near to wrecking her career through over-promotion. Anyway, they’re stuck with her for now.

On the positive side, Simon Birmingham, whose credentials I have been touting seemingly since I started this job, must surely be promoted. The easiest way would be to swap him with Mark Coulton, the low-profile NSW National who is shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Water. This would allow Birmingham to better target fellow South Australian Penny Wong in the Senate on an issue on which the Government is increasingly exposed. The only problem with Birmingham is he comes from South Australia, and the next best talent on the backbench is Jamie Briggs from Mayo, who is also wasted on the backbench given his policy nous. It may, unfortunately, be impossible to promote two South Australians despite their quality.

Scott Morrison has also impressed from the distant reaches of Housing and Local Government. He is media-savvy, and increasingly being spoken of as one of the next generation of leaders (invariably the kiss of death in the Liberal Party). And Tony Smith also appears underemployed as shadow Assistant Treasurer. He would surely be a good replacement for Chris Pearce. Chris Bowen is the superannuation minister and if Smith is the up-and-comer people say he is, he should be tested against one of Labor’s rising stars.

Who should come out? Neither Bob Baldwin nor Louise Markus have performed poorly in Defence Personnel and Veterans’ Affairs, respectively, but both face tough elections – Baldwin looks a goner in Paterson, and Markus is moving to Macquarie to try to wrest that off Bob Debus’s successor. Baldwin is not rated by defence experts. And it has been an continuing mystery why Nigel Scullion was put in Human Services in the first place by Malcolm Turnbull.

Sophie Mirabella has struggled to make an impact in childcare and women’s affairs, although that’s partly because the collapse of ABC Learning has been handled reasonably tightly by the Government. Nick Minchin should return to Defence. While his endless sparring with Stephen Conroy is enjoyable to watch, he is problematic in Communications given his role in the creation of the privatised Telstra.

The ranks of the shadow Parliamentary Secretaries could probably do with a shake-up but it’s such a low-profile position it scarcely seems worth bothering about it.

The bigger problem is that the Opposition won’t get its best team onto the field until the leadership issue is sorted out and the Nationals decamp or accept a smaller role. The new generation of talent is starting to come through, but when everyone has to walk on eggshells it’s hard for merit to be appropriately rewarded.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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